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Intelligent Design's One Valid Scientific Point

The life and behavioral sciences don't yet explain behavior, though they could.

I’m an atheist with a PhD. in evolutionary theory. I spend much of my time encouraging a new relationship with religion and spirituality modeled on our relationship with fiction.

For example, I wish that Christians believed in Christ the way they believe in Santa Claus, as a fictional character based loosely on a historical one, reconfigured to embody a first-cut simplification of Christian values for kids that remains vivid and valued by nostalgic and conscientious adults.

Or like Marvel movies, virtue mythologies that audiences find fully believable while watching them, knowing full well that they’re fictions.

I am no supporter of Intelligent Design (ID), the Christian movement that wants to teach the Bible as science. I work against it. Still, I work more on a challenge to scientists, a crucial question that ID addresses and scientists ignore. The question: What explains agency?

ID’s answer to this question isn’t science. Still, ID argues that the question needs answering and that scientists don’t answer it. On that one point, I side with ID.

Perhaps that’s giving ID too much credit for ferreting out the right question. ID mostly challenges scientists on how traits could evolve, a question that evolutionists can answer handily.

Harping on that easily answered questions, ID often misses scientist’s greater vulnerability. In Christian charity to Christians, I’ll offer a helping hand by saying that if ID campaigners noticed that the sciences offer no explanation for agency, they’d pounce on that question instead, It’s the science’s Achilles heel at present, not that it has to be. At the end here I’ll point to a new scientific explanation for agency.

What do I mean by agency? Agency is the behavior of agents like you and me though not just of humans. Agency is evident in any living being, any organism making an effort for its own benefit, effort fitted to circumstances. You are an agent but so is a bug, begonia or bacterium. All organisms try to stay alive. Trying is the heart of agency.

Most organisms don’t know they’re trying, don’t feel like trying and aren’t trying to try better. Still, they try to stay alive. That’s agency.

Agency boils down to three basic attributes, absolutely essential to the life and behavioral sciences, and completely irrelevant in the physical sciences:

Effort: Trying, which is what’s meant by behavior in contrast to mere phenomena. Chemicals don’t try to do anything. Agents do.

Function: The effort is of benefit for the agent. An agent’s adaptive traits are functional because they improve the agent’s chances of succeeding at what’s of value to it, chiefly survival and reproduction. Nothing is of value to chemicals, but things are of value to agents.

Fittedness: Which is different from material conformity. Molecules may fit together physically but that’s different from fittedness, responsiveness to context.

No physical scientist could get away with saying that chemical changes try to keep going for their own sake. Down the hall, behavioral scientists can talk all they like about agents trying to keep going for their own sake. What explains this double standard? Scientists still have no answer, though they could.

You are an agent. Your table or computer is not. We communicate with computers as though they are agents responsive to us, but they aren’t. They don’t try on their own behalf. A computer values nothing. Put a million supercomputers on a sterile planet and let them run for millennia, you still won’t have an agent. Computers work on our behalf, not their own. They’re an agent’s tools, not agents themselves.

So how does ID explain agency? Beautifully from a poetic fictional perspective. From a scientific perspective, they offer no explanation at all.

According to ID (and theology and spirituality in general) agency doesn’t need explaining because it’s the fundamental property of the universe, present in God before the origin of the physical universe.

God is an agent engaged in intelligent design (functional trying). He created the physical universe for His Godly benefit (“And He saw that it was good”). God then inseminates some of His agency into matter making us agents.

God is omniscient, omnipotent and omni-pleasant (wanting the best benefit by His standards). By this account, what can’t be explained? About anything, just say, “It’s God’s will.”

This religious account is beautiful, intuitive, evocative and poetic. It’s especially resonant in a man’s world. Men create new agents (children) by inseminating agency into matter just like God. Indeed, until the middle 1600’s, scientists (natural philosophers) thought a fully formed person was present as a homunculus (little man) in a man’s sperm. Women were just the material incubator and resources from which men created new forms by insemination.

We can update this old male fiction by swapping God for a Goddess or abandoning gender altogether and calling it a higher power. But, at core, the story remains the same. The higher power is never imagined as a mere voltage. The higher power even stripped of its white beard, is still an agent. It engages in functional effort, intelligent design. A higher power is imagined as a great pre-celestial agent that tries and succeeds in creating the material universe and then inseminating it here and there with seeds of its own agency.

And this God seed – what is it? To ID, it’s undetectable. We know it only by its consequences. Still, the religious give it names. God inseminates matter with spirit or soul.

That’s all fine poetry and even as an avid atheist, I see no reason to stop reciting it. I use the words soul and spirit. I like those words – as fiction, poetry, not science.

Science is a campaign to find natural explanations for all natural phenomena. In science, it’s not OK to drift into poetic allusion. You can’t just give a name to something you can’t detect and claim that it explains the consequences you can detect. If you could, scientists could say “there’s some undetectable miracle substance, force or process that explains everything,” and then claim total scientific victory. That would be like claiming that “It’s the universe’s miraculous will” explains everything.

So how does science explain agency?

Well, that’s my point here. Poetically. Lamely, not that it can’t explain it, just that it hasn’t. Indeed, scientists seem more inclined to explain agency away as though agency were a convenient and useful fiction that scientists could do without. To many scientists, there really is no agency. We’re just complex chemistry.

In practice though, life and behavioral scientists get by without an explanation for agency by equivocation, basically, talking out both sides of their mouths. Scientists won’t use obviously-poetic terms like soul or spirit but they will use other placeholders for what needs explaining. Agency is one, or they might call it will, motivation, appetite, drive. They skip from chemistry to life by talking about chemical mechanisms that yield motivations, appetites, and drives that, in turn, yield functional fitted behaviors. There’s chemistry and then, there’s agency. In between, well, there must be something, so we’ll give it a name even though we haven’t explained it.

What exactly are motivations, appetites, and drives and how in an otherwise agent-free material universe do they emerge? That’s the question scientists should be asking. Very few do. At least the ID and spiritual types think it needs answering.

Most scientists today will tell you that agency emerges with evolution by natural selection, which they regard as a kind of blind watchmaker, without acknowledging that even a blind watchmaker is an agent trying to make watches.

Some are so desperate to explain away agency that they try to redefine the word “design.” “Nothing tries,” they’ll say. “Evolution doesn’t try to design, but it designs you. You don’t try. You’re just the product of chemical (DNA, RNA) replication, which isn’t trying either. You may try to believe that you try but you don’t” By this supposedly scientific pretzel logic, agency is nowhere but everywhere.

Here, for example, is Jerry Coyne, a big name in evolutionary theory arguing that my question “what is agency?” is the product of my muddle-headed thinking. To him, evolution proves that we are nothing but deterministic chemistry. What distinguishes us is that we are the robot bodies of DNA copying chemically under natural selection’s “design.”

Chemicals copy in any chain reaction. What then is the difference between DNA and other chemicals? DNA has “heritable material.” What is “heritable material”? It’s equivocation, kind of a homunculus and kind of a chemical. He might just as well say that DNA has a soul.

Only agents (and by extention, their tools and artifacts) evolve toward greater fittedness and function. Chemistry changes over the course of the universe’s history. Does it change functionally?

No. Scientists should leave such dreams of an evolving universe to poetry and spirituality. Only organisms (and their functional tools) evolve toward greater functionally fitted effort.

Saying that evolution explains agency is like saying that erosion explains mountains. Evolution by natural selection explains the honing but not what’s honed. What’s honed is agency, which scientists have yet to explain.

Here’s a new scientific explanation for the emergence of agency, developed by UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon.